Iqbal: an Illustrated Biography (2006/2010) by Khurram Ali Shafique


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Chapter 3

The Illumination (1914-1922)

Secrets and Mysteries


Thirteenth Century scholar Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi was lecturing his pupils when he was interrupted by a wandering dervish Shams of Tabriz, who pointed at the books and asked what they were. He was met with sarcasm by the irritated scholar: “Something you would not comprehend.” Presently, Shams threw the books into a nearby pond and when Rumi was devastated on their loss he took them out, dry and unharmed – or, according to another variation on this parable the dervish burnt the books and later restored them from the ashes. In either case, when Rumi asked him in disbelief what was it he had done, the dervish returned him his own words, “Something you would not comprehend!” Rumi fainted and found himself a changed man when he recovered several days later.

This historically unreliable anecdote contains a candid metaphorical approximation of what might have happened when Rumi met Shams who was to become his master. The passage from knowing to witnessing is indeed nothing less than a miracle and requires a master to perform it for the disciple. The master who came to Iqbal’s aid was, remarkably, none other than Rumi himself. For it is said that Iqbal dreamed that the master was asking him to write a masnavi. “You command us to negate the self whereas it appears to me that the self ought to be strengthened,” Iqbal protested in this dream. “The meaning of what I say is not different from what you understand,” said the mysterious Sufi before Iqbal woke up to find himself inspired for writing his own masnavi.

He intended three volumes of this masnavi, which was eventually going to be called Secrets and Mysteries (Asrar-o-Rumooz). The first part would define the source of all good in the practical world: the human ego, or the self, receiving its illumination from the Absolute Reality and in turn illuminating all areas of human existence. The second part would explore the relation between the individual ego and the society, and how an ideal nation could emerge from the combined will of enlightened individuals. The third and the final volume would describe the future history of one such nation, the Muslims.

The human possibilities, Iqbal thought, were as yet unexplored and he truly believed that his message was derived from those meanings of the Quran that were awaiting the modern times to be fully realized. Little did he imagine that he would soon be accused of muddling the stream of religious thought with greed and egotism.

The self-perception of being alone, and unique, made it easy for Iqbal to see himself as a poet from another time and space: a poet of tomorrow. It liberated him from his world so that he could open himself to what he would frequently describe, in various ways, as the source of life itself. What he later said of some contemporaries was equally true of him too: “Such men are liable to make mistakes. But the history of nations shows that even their mistakes have sometimes borne good fruit. In them it is not logic but life itself that struggles restless to solve its own problems.” It is this “connectedness” that makes Iqbal sound so contemporary in the 21st Century.

“Life is but a manifestation of the selves,” he opened the first chapter of his book after the prelude, “Everything you see is counted among the secrets of the self.” The self (or the ego) is the creator of its own opposites, it manifests itself through power, strife, love, life and death – hence in one sweep Iqbal flies through anonymous allusions to Hegel’s philosophy and Nietzsche’s will to power, and arrives beyond. However, the self is none of these and more – the references to these attributes are merely figures of speech comprehensible to the readers. The point Iqbal really wants to make is that whatever we know about life and the universe, whether we know it through science, religion or metaphysics, eventually boils down to one basic fact: by strengthening the ego you live; through its renunciation you perish. True and lasting expansion does not come from invading the space of others; it comes from growing stronger in oneself. The principle of growth is inward-out, not out-and-out. The seed contains the stem in it, and likewise by nurturing the fountainhead within and not by envying the power of others a human being grows stronger.

Thinkers who aspire to present a coherent picture of the world often take off by focusing on one issue as a starting point and the central problem to Iqbal, in life as well as thought, remained the nature of love. Here, he tried to make sense of this ultimate madness, i.e. love. If there were no “others” in the world and no distances, no pangs of unrequited feelings (and the spurns), then there would have been no desire; and desire is to the ego what fuel is to an engine and water to all living things. Desire is the lifeblood of the ego. Rumi started his masnavi by saying that the music of the flute was nothing but the reed’s cry in pain over separation from its source. Iqbal ventured to show, rather boldly, the other side of the coin: the flute became what it was by separation from its source. True, the separation is virtual rather than real (and Rumi had already pointed out that the music is coming from the breath of the player and hence there is no distance between the two ends of the flute). Iqbal accepted Rumi’s perception of the Divine origin but went on to state that separation had its own virtues: in a perfect union things would turn to nothings.

The anatomy of desire is usually seen as comprising of love and begging. Iqbal was probably right in claiming that he was unraveling the secrets no one else dared reveal in the East: he was pointing out that love and begging were the opposites of each other and you could only choose one of these two. Love, in its essence, is the tool through which the ego elevates itself above the impediments of the physical world; love could teach rebellion to the humblest creatures. “The hardest rocks are shivered by Love’s glance,” said Iqbal. “Love of God at last becomes wholly God.” Asking, however, dissociated the ego from its Divine source of illumination.

Naturally enough he deplored the literature that followed conventions of self-negation and perpetuated a distorted image of love that equated desire with beggary (it was Iqbal’s criticism of Hafiz in the first edition of ‘Asrar-i-Khudi’ that raised the storm of protest in 1915). Iqbal also criticized Plato, as should be expected from someone whose position on the reality of the physical world and the significance of “purpose” in defining things was in a direct line of inheritance from the man who said that A is A (Iqbal’s dislike for being labeled would prevent him from wanting to be seen even as an Aristotelean; in his notebook he jotted down difference with the Greek philosopher over a non-issue after admitting agreement on the basics).

In his characteristic spirit of ruthless objectivity Iqbal glorified Time, which to him was neither a sequence of day and night, nor just another dimension of space, but was nothing less than a Divine manifestation. “Do not vilify Time, for God says ‘I am Time,’” the Prophet had told his followers. With this remarkable hadith, Iqbal also used a quotation from Imam Shafii by way of further explanation: “Time is a sword.” One who reads the signs of the Time instead of finding faults with it is the one who masters all difficulties. Escape from Time is lethal – and here we may add that nostalgia for the past and unrealistic wishes for the future are two chief examples. The ego needs to discover a symbiotic relationship with the sublime energy that is Time.

Moving from the general to the specific, Iqbal highlights the love his Muslim readers carry for the Prophet, and shows them that the education of the Self has three stages: (a) obedience; (b) self-control; and (c) the divine vicegerency. The purpose of the Muslim’s life was to exalt the Word of God. Jihad, if it be prompted by land-hunger, was unlawful in the religion of Islam.

Iqbal perceived this wonderful creation, the individual, to be an organic component of the larger social organism. The society was an ego too, he propounded in ‘Rumooz-i-Bekhudi’, the second part of his masnavi. The individual finds an everlasting strength by submerging his or her ego into that of the nation. The Muslim nation was independent of time and space, and its eternity was promised (unlike the individual, whose immortality was only conditional). The two fundamental principles of this nation were monotheism (which cured fear and despair, the two spiritual diseases fatal to the ego), and prophet-hood (which aimed at providing liberty, equality and fraternity to the human race).The nationality of Islam, fortunately, was based on the principle of equality and freedom (in the proof of which Shibli had left behind enough anecdotes from history before dying in November 1914, when Iqbal was still working on the first part of the masnavi).

What is more significant is that Iqbal provided an alternate position on the relationship between the individual and the society, rooted in love and like-mindedness rather than whim or racist principles.

The idea of the individual ego merging into the larger ego of the community was a movement of growth: one cannot achieve alone what many can achieve together, as we are now realizing through such concepts as synergy and teamwork in management sciences. What could not be achieved in the world if the entire human race could turn into a like-minded creative whole?

The battle for God

Above. The first edition of 'Asrar-i-Khudi' (1915) contained some harsh criticism of Plato and Hafiz. On further reconsideration, Iqbal changed his opinion about Hafiz but remained a lifelong opponent of Plato, making it his mission to detox the literature and spirituality of the East from the negative influence of the Greek philosopher.

Back in 1910 he had made a mental note on shifting the focus of the Eastern metaphysics from the existence of God to the existence of the human being. The anatomy of the human ego presented in ‘Asrar-i-Khudi’ was glowing with the light of the Divine Existence. “I have conceived the Ultimate Reality as an Ego,” he later wrote. “From the Ultimate Ego only egos proceed.” Individuality implies finitude, and although he did not raise the issue in ‘Asrar-i-Khudi’, he addressed it boldly many years later in The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. “The Ultimate Ego is... neither infinite in the sense of spatial infinity nor finite in the sense of the space-bound human ego whose body closes him off in reference to other egos. The infinity of the Ultimate Ego consists in the infinite inner possibilities of His creative activity of which the universe, as known to us, is only a partial expression. In one word, God’s infinity is intensive, not extensive.”

Other important elements in his conception of God, from the intellectual perspective, would be later named as Creativeness, Knowledge, Omnipotence and Eternity. In each of these God is superior to, and inestimably different from, the human being, since the universe and reality is not an ‘other’ to Him. “The Absolute Ego... is the whole of Reality,” Iqbal would state in The Reconstruction. “The perfection of the Creative Self consists... in the vaster basis of His creative activity and the infinite scope of His creative vision.”

Iqbal’s position on Sufism has long constituted a controversy in the study of his thought, beginning with ‘Asrar-i-Khudi’. The preface to the first edition denounced wahdatul wujud (which was subsequently translated as pantheism in his English writings). Some of his detractors would later point out that like his predecessor Shiekh Ahmad Sirhindi, who had done the same in the early 17th Century, Iqbal could not access the original writings of Ibn ‘Arabi to whom the popular opinion ascribed the origin of wahdatul wujud, and his adolescent familiarity with The Bezzels of Wisdom was far from an ideal starting point for an understanding of Ibn ‘Arabi. According to these detractors, Iqbal, like the early Orientalists, ignored the fact that wujud in Arabic had the same root as wajdan (intuition) and carried a second meaning of “finding”; such connotations were tragically lost through translation as “the unity of being” or “the unity of existence”, and to equate it with pantheism (as Iqbal did) was a great blunder.

Whatever may have been the meaning of wahdatul wujud for Ibn ‘Arabi and his inner circle, the corrupted usage of this term, which came to prevail in India at least as early as the days of Sirhindi, was nothing less than a justification used by the handful of the ruling Muslim elite for the weakening of their nerves (which was an unavoidable consequence of the sustained activity of empire-building for almost a thousand years). Wahdatul wujud became a convenient euphemism which could be used for just any excuse for procrastination, lack of determination or inaction on any given occasion. Hence the couplet of a Pathan poet, aptly quoted by Iqbal in a hostile essay: “I used to turn away armies in the battlefield but ever since I became familiar with the wahdatul wujud I squirm away even from breaking a straw since it might hurt God (since the Almighty was supposed to be existing in everything according to the corrupted usage of this doctrine).” Whether or not Ibn ‘Arabi would have been shocked at this blasphemy, there was no way for Iqbal to be sure that the Spanish mystic was not the original perpetrator of such attitudes. Consequently, although Ibn ‘Arabi was spared slants in the poem itself he was shown no reverence in table talk and correspondence for some time. “The Bezzels of Wisdom used to be taught at my father’s house while I was growing up,” Iqbal wrote in a letter. “From what I know, it contains nothing but atheism and impiety.” This view was changed afterwards and reverence was restored to Ibn ‘Arabi.

Hence it should not surprise us that while Iqbal denounced wahdatul wujud, he was also the most eloquent mouthpiece of some of its aspects at the same time. Mir Dard included, the entire repertoire of mystic poetry in Urdu may not furnish a single example to outdo this remarkable couplet from Bal-i-Gabriel (1935): “This is the gist of what the qalandars know: life is an arrow spent and yet never far removed from the bow.” Another couplet from a Persian ghazal gives us a remarkable analogy for the distance (or closeness) between the human being and its Creator: “Between me and Him is the equation of the eye and the sight, for one is with the other even in the greatest of distances.”

Critics have found difficulty reconciling such expressions with his well-known stand against wahdatul wujud, and the most convenient alibi is, of course, to say that Iqbal had yet another change of heart some time after writing ‘Asrar-i-Khudi’! One way of avoiding such melodramatic explanations is to say that Iqbal, like most of his contemporaries, confused two different concepts: the wahdatul wujud as experienced by Ibn ‘Arabi and the greater mystics, and the wahdatul wujud as perceived by the decadent Muslim societies of the later period; hence he believed that both were the same, and criticized both, but inner life discovered and retained a contact with the Divine illumination which, whether he knew it or not, was directly in line with the original Sufi connotations of wujud. Another way of looking at things could be to presume that just like his predecessors Shah Waliullah and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Iqbal had also been able to catch the glimpse of something outside the speculative debates of theology, and was speaking from a different milieu altogether.

All said and done, most mystics (including Rumi, according to some), favored union over separation. Union was a blessing while separation was a curse: the drop becomes the ocean itself by becoming a part of it. According to Iqbal, however, the drop should lodge itself in an oyster and become a pearl.

“The wave, so long as it remains a wave in the sea’s bosom makes itself rider on the sea’s back,” he stated in ‘Asrar-i-Khudi’ (The same imagery had been used earlier in ‘The Candle and the Poet’ (1912) to illustrate the dependence of the wave on the ocean). From a traditional mystical position this sounds like an affront to love. However, this is just another point where Iqbal seems to be in touch with the pulse of our times even more than that of his own. Today, the society itself seems to be imposing the mixed blessing of personal space on individuals – the large percentage of broken marriages and an increased number of people, women included, who opt for living single are already being interpreted by some observers as a change in the patterns of personal growth in the modern world. Added to this is the general observation that most citizens today insist on determining their obligations towards the society without compromising on their own individuality.

Mysticism had a unique role in the East where the traditional society was polarized between the court and the shrine. In the absence of political movements the shrine provided catharsis for the socially oppressed classes as well as for any non-conformist drop-outs from the elitist circles, such as the aristocratic Ameer Khusro and the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh. Obviously, this was also a safety valve that prevented the masses from questioning the roots of oppression. Iqbal appeared at a time when this non-questioning character of the Eastern society was changing due to contact with Western political thought and it was therefore inevitable that his interpretation of the tradition, no matter how mystical, could not be in full conformity with the past. In that he was guided, fortunately, not so much by logic but more by what he termed as “an inner synthesis of life.”

Beyond his own age Iqbal was also criticized by that breed of post-colonial scholars who is best represented by Syed Hossien Nasr and his circle – a new type of scholarship about which it is yet to be decided whether it represents the perspective of the West or the East, or some other perspective developed in the isolation of academic covens. Their main accusations against Iqbal are that he was a Darwinian and departed from the traditional Muslim thinking. Such accusations are probably rooted in a general perception that prevails in the Western academia (and was evident even in the days of Iqbal), according to which the East is not capable of offering any original thought in our own age. Anyone who shares this bias is invariably doomed to measure Iqbal by the parameters already known in the academic circles of the West. The pre-requisite for understanding Iqbal seems to be a willingness to grasp a new worldview, and despite their tremendous profundity and scholarship, Nasr and his school have not yet shown this kind of willingness. It would probably suffice to say that while Iqbal had an adequate respect for the old, he also committed to the value of human growth. To him, the humanity was developing like a single organism, and the differences between cultures were to be used for empowerment of the people, and not to be idolized pseudo-identities: “Give up not on the East, nor shun the West when the Nature itself signals you to turn every night into a bright morning,” was his message.

The Poetics of Iqbal

Above: Iqbal with his friend Nawab Sir Zulfiqar Ali Khan, who wrote the first monograph on the poetics of Iqbal, A Voice from the East (1922).

Considerable portion of ‘Asrar-i-Khudi’ was devoted to the philosophy of art, especially literature, and this theme recurred in many subsequent writings – most notably in ‘The Book of Slaves’ in Persian Psalms(1927) and Zarb-i-Kaleem (1937). All such views taken collectively form a kind of poetics of Iqbal, and may be approached from two aspects: firstly, the psychology of creation; and secondly, the aim of art and literature.

So much has been written about Iqbal’s lofty ideals in arts that it is very often forgotten how much importance he placed on the basics. The craft is important. Iqbal himself mastered the classical skills of poetry while still at school. These included the science of metre, numerology of alphabet and the rules governing various genres. The medieval tradition of apprenticeship held these rules as inviolable and there was a degree of truth in that belief: the rules of any art are not made by the masters but discovered by them. They are just like the laws of nature; you need to discover the laws governing gravity if you want to make an aircraft. Likewise, you need to understand the effect of language on the listeners if you wish to move them with your poem. It is true that the poet may be inspired with an idea that is difficult to be expressed through conventional manner of writing. However, it is the destiny of a true artist to struggle against the scientific laws of his or her craft, so that the great idea becomes more than an idea – so that it becomes a piece of art that can appeal not only to the mind but to the entire being of the audience. It was with reference to these labors and rigors that Iqbal later said in The Blow of Moses (1936): “Although the invention of meaning is nature’s boon, yet from striving and struggling the craftsman cannot be free. By the heat in the mason’s blood does it take its life: be it the tavern of Hafiz or the temple of Behzad! Without persistent labor no talent reveals itself, for the house of Farhad is illuminated by the sparks of his spade.”

The first criterion for any piece of art, therefore, is perfection. It should be beautiful, grand and pleasing. It must give pleasure. However, since ego is the most cherished value in life, a piece of art must also aim at strengthening the ego and not at weakening it. “Thus the idea of personality gives us a standard of value,” he wrote in his explanatory notes to Nicholson when the latter set out to translate ‘Asrar-i-Khudi’ a few years later. “That which fortifies personality is good, that which weakens it is bad. Art, religion, and ethics must be judged from the stand-point of personality. My criticism of Plato is directed against those philosophical systems which uphold death rather than life as their ideal – systems which ignore the greatest obstructions to life, namely, matter, and teach us to run away from it instead of absorbing it.”

It is here, in his theory of art, that Iqbal comes closest to Aristotle (a point often ignored). His concept of art rests heavily on assumptions such as A is A, contradictions do not exist, purpose defines the object, and growth is a central value in life – basic Aristotelian dictums. It is quite likely that although he was acquainted with Aristotle’s writings too, he absorbed these ideas more passionately through the works of such Muslim poets as Nezami Ganjavi and Abdur Rahman Jami among the old, and Maulana Hali among the new, who had written extensively on the philosophy of verbal art – and, quite possibly, also those classical Muslim thinkers who had reinterpreted Aristotle in the light of the ideals of Islam. Similarities between Iqbal and the American author Ayn Rand (1905 – 1982), although extremely superficial, may still present a laboratory test on how far Iqbal’s literary views were enriched by the Aristotelian current in the Muslim thought as well as the Romantic Movement of the West. Iqbal and Ayn Rand never admitted of hearing about Iqbal (which casts a somewhat undesirable shadow on her scholarship), but some of her propositions sounded like literal translations of Iqbal when it came to defining the purpose of art. Rand described art as “the technology of soul” and the means for the human being’s “psychological survival.” Passages from The Romantic Manifesto (published as a book in 1971, but dating back to the 1950s), could easily pass for Iqbal’s own words if one didn’t know better: “Since man’s ambition is unlimited, since his pursuit and achievement of values is a lifelong process – and the higher the values, the harder the struggle – man needs a moment, an hour or some period of time in which he can experience the sense of his completed task, the sense of living in a universe where his values have been successfully achieved. It is like a moment of rest, a moment to gain fuel to move further. Art gives him that fuel. Art gives him the experience of seeing the full, immediate, concrete reality of his distant goals.” It is quite interesting to notice that Rand deplored the influence of Plato on the intellectual life of the West while Iqbal deplored the same in the East. The only plausible reason for such similarities could be their common interest in Aristotle.

The unwritten


The third part of the masnavi, which was supposed to describe a history of the future, got delayed for some reason. There are two possible explanations. The first is that after writing the second part, his poetic inspiration took a much more lyrical bent, and compelled him to turn to allegories such as the Urdu poems ‘Khizr of the Way’ and ‘The Dawn of Islam’, and the Persian anthology Zuboor-e-Ajam (to be discussed in the next chapter). However, he eventually described the basic principles of the destiny of nations in his last Persian masnavi, What Should Now Be Done? (1936), which answers many questions that might be asked at the end of Secrets and Mysteries.

“You know very well,” he says in What Should Now Be Done?, “Monarchy is about the use of brute force. This brute force, in our own times, is commerce. The shop is now an extension of the throne: they acquire profit through commerce and tax through kingdom.” He advises the Eastern nations to strengthen their self-esteem by drawing upon the healthy traditions of the past, and by attaining economic independence. He insists that healthy personalities cannot develop without political independence, and he explains that political wisdom is either divinely inspired or diabolic. The divinely inspired political wisdom liberates, like Moses; the diabolical political wisdom enslaves, like the Pharaoh.

Another explanation could be that he embedded the unwritten history of the future in all the works which he wrote after Secrets and Mysteries. For obvious reasons, such a proposition sounds fanciful and may require a separate book in order to be fully explored – possibly a book very different from the present one.

“The object of my Persian poems is not to make out a case for Islam,” he stated to the Western audience at one point. “My aim is simply to discover a universal social reconstruction.” He went on to explain why it was philosophically impossible to ignore a social system that met this ideal of combining matter with spirit. He might have also seen the religious belief as a useful latent resource for mobilizing the people. If they were willing to die in the name of faith then there must be no limit to the wonders they could achieve if their faith was reinterpreted as a recipe for “universal social reconstruction.”

However, this approach was not without its fatal drawback and with our knowledge of what happened to his message after his death we can see the irony more clearly than he might have anticipated in his own times. If he were expecting that the masses would jump with a pleasant surprise at finding a more liberating interpretation of their ancient beliefs then he was obviously overlooking those countless numbers to whom religion wasn’t necessarily a tool for self-actualization but rather a convenient escape from critical thinking.

This was evident in the reaction to his poems. The first appearance of ‘Asrar-i-Khudi’ was met with a widespread outrage but criticism was restricted to the author’s irreverence to Hafiz and his dedicating the poem to a controversial personality. Virtually nobody questioned the main argument of the book or asked the author whether his philosophy was practicable or not, whether it was based on fact or delusion; people were not bothered about the truth of what he was saying, they were merely concerned with its propriety. Once the storm subsided, his former reputation as a poet of Islam was remembered and in fact, new colors added to it. Then the balance tilted in the other direction with an equal sway of emotion: his works were scanned to pick up references to Muslim kings and warriors until those few and sparse verses where he had glorified the past became his best known lines. Mercilessly taken out of their context they were printed on calendars and banners in his lifetime and ever since, and serve as fuel to whatever direction the mass hysteria takes at any given time. Holistic view of Iqbal’s message has been rare while the real worth of his poems perhaps still lies undiscovered – as he himself prophesied at the beginning of ‘Asrar-i-Khudi’: “My own age doesn’t know the secrets; my Joseph is not for this market… Many a poet there has been who are born after they die, opening our eyes while closing their own; like flowers they sprout from the soil of their tombs.”

Political correctness is one issue that seems very relevant here. Indeed, Iqbal is held in such reverence in his own country that the idea of apologizing on his behalf is understandably offensive to many. It must be remembered, however, that he himself was quicker than most thinkers in responding to ever new manifestations of reality and even when he had to retract from a previously held proposition he did so not with a grudge or dismay but with an almost childlike fascination at finding the possibility of a new position. This is what he did throughout his life and this is what he might have wanted to do even after his death: he even anticipates growth in the grave when he mentions that like flowers some poets sprout from the soil of their tombs. How would he modify his propositions if he were living in the 21st Century? This question cannot be irrelevant to the legacy of an immortal thinker and can be answered at least in some parts if we distinguish his thought from analogy, principle from example.

One such issue is Iqbal’s position on the women’s role in society. ‘Rumooz-i-Bekhudi’ doesn’t finish without ‘An Address to the Maidens of Islam,’ in which the poet emphasizes the importance of motherhood in ways that sound today like a denial of the woman as an individual in her own right. Indeed it might be so, but we must remember that neither England nor America had granted its women the right to vote by that time. In stating the views that he stated in his writings, Iqbal wasn’t being backward but only taking sides with a large section of men and women throughout the world who feared that women’s equality with men could not be translated into practice. That the world didn’t come to an end when the women eventually started participating in political life is such an obvious fact that it is hard to believe that Iqbal would have missed it if he was living in our times. That he advocated many social rights for women in his later life (which will be discussed in their proper place), is a reassurance to this, if needed.

World War I, and the aftermath


The First World War (1914-1918) began while Iqbal was writing the first part of his poem, and ended after the publication of the second. The Russian Revolution came in the meanwhile, and afterwards, Gandhi’s non-cooperation tactics (including the great Khilafat Movement of the Muslims of the sub-continent). Iqbal gave two cheers to the first, and perhaps only one to the second. He was obviously delighted to see the uprising of the downtrodden against an oppressive system in Russia, but communism was alien to his fundamental thesis that the nature of reality is essentially spiritual and the human capability grows organically from within to master the physical world. Iqbal was moved, not by the ideology of the Bolsheviks but the earth shattering cry of freedom that came from the throats of millions in a grand unison during that Red October.

Gandhi’s heroic defiance of the British imperialism also won some versified praise from Iqbal (which remains half-forgotten today, since it was later kept out of his collected works). However, just as the Bolsheviks had denied the spiritual principle in the name of modern technology, Gandhi apparently denied modernity in the name of some spiritual principle that was only partially revealed to him yet, and his followers were promised to be updated periodically when and as, and if, the guru’s inner light illuminated him. Iqbal joined the Khilafat Movement initially but quitted it over disagreement on constitutional procedures – the Khilafat leaders were well-known for being driven by a noble expediency that often made them incapable of fulfilling rational requirements (and it is interesting to recall that Jinnah also dissented from the Indian National Congress around the same time over similar disagreements with Gandhi).

‘Khizr of the Way,’ the Urdu poem Iqbal recited in 1922, captured his appraisal of the current affairs and in some ways summarized the contents of the third part of his Persian poem, which was very much on his mind at that point but he was delaying its writing (and the composition of an exhaustive Urdu poem could be one reason why he was left without the appetite to revisit the subject even in Persian too soon).

Khizr, the traditional ever-living guide of Islamic folklore, gives a quick recap of the principle of movement and existence – as if for the benefit of those who might have missed Iqbal’s longer Persian dissertations on the subject – and then comes to three crucial issues: imperialism, capital versus labor, and the Muslim world.

“Imperialism is sorcery of the dominant nations,” the old sage speaks through Iqbal, and euphemistically criticizes the recent constitutional reforms of the British government as mere eyewash. Through Khizr’s salute to the Russian people in another section of the poem, Iqbal comes out as most magnanimous: he goes to the extent of defending the Bolshevik philosophy against his own spiritual principle. “The human spirit broke free of all fetters,” says Khizr. “After all, how long, could Adam weep for a lost paradise?”

References to the current situation of the Muslim world in this poem are, simply, poetic expression at its best. “The sons of the Trinity took away the legacy of Abraham; the dust of Arabia turned into a brick in the wall of the Church,” Khizr comments on the tactful subjugation of the Middle East by the British by pitting the Arabs against the Turks. “The tulip-colored cap [a reference to the traditional Turkish fez] earned a bad reputation in the world, and those who were used to be coy and vain are now forced to beg and borrow [apparently referring to the negotiations between the Ottoman Sultan and the Allied conquerors over a humiliating treaty]. Iran is buying from the West, a liquor that will melt the container with its heat [alluding to the trade treaties between Iran and the Western imperialists]; the stratagem of the West did to the Muslim nation what rust does to gold and turns it into pieces. The blood of the Muslims is being taken at the price of water; however, your anxiety is based on ignorance. Rumi said long ago: whenever an old foundation is to be resurrected, do you not know that the ancient edifice is first demolished?”

Iqbal’s advice to the Muslim world was in stark contrast to the prevalent trends of those days, represented by the Ali Brothers (the larger than life Mualana Muhammad Ali Jauhar and his high-spirited brother Maulana Shaukat Ali) and other leaders of the Khilafat Movement, who, on one hand were forging alliances with the Hindu community on a rather emotional foundation, and on the other hand taking deputations to those very colonial rulers against whom they were struggling at home.

“Let the country slip out of your hands if it does,” Iqbal had said two years ago in a poem titled ‘The Beggars of the Caliphate.’ “You must not deviate from the commandments of the Truth!” Now, Iqbal advised through Khizr that the Muslim countries must unite, regardless of their political situations, and the message came in the verses that have since then become proverbial: “The Muslims ought to unite in order to defend their Holy Shrine; from the banks of the Nile to the soil of Kashghar” (Eik houn Muslim harem ki pasbani kay liye/ Neil kay sahil say lay ker tabakhak-i-Kashghar). He advised the Muslim world to hold its calm and fix its eyes on the long-term vision, ignoring the emergent opportunities that seemed expediently attractive but defeated the ultimate goals.

Events in the following years proved that Iqbal, the alleged dreamer, was correct on every count and the heroic men of action were wrong in their disagreement with the poet-philosopher.

The uproar in London


‘Asrar-i-Khudi’ was translated by R. A. Nicholson in 1920, a year before Iqbal recited ‘Khizr of the Way.’ The English speaking world noticed it at once, and two years later the ‘Lieutenant Governor of Punjab’ (the Raj jargon for the Governor of Punjab), upon hearing the name of Iqbal from a foreign journalist, woke up to the need for raising the native poet to the status of an Indian Knight. In the meanwhile, the mainstream literary current of the West had taken an outrage against Iqbal’s philosophy. Whatever the world might have thought at that time, a fresh reading of those reviews stir our sympathy for Iqbal as a giant stranded among pygmies.

To begin with, the well-meaning Nicholson had an unfortunate gift for grasping details with penetrating understanding while missing out the larger picture even if it were thrust under his nose. Prior to the publication of his translation he asked Iqbal for a summary statement, which the poet-philosopher hurriedly drew up.

“The idea of personality gives us a standard of value: it settles the problem of good and evil,” Iqbal wrote in his notes for Nicholson. “That which fortifies personality is good, that which weakens it is bad. Art, religion, and ethics must be judged from the stand-point of personality…” Nicholson, despite the benefit of Iqbal’s complete statement (which ran into several pages), had the adamant capability of presenting him as “a religious enthusiast, inspired by the vision of a New Mecca [sic. Makkah], a world-wide, theocratic, Utopian state in which all Moslems, no longer divided by the barriers of race and country, shall be one… It must be observed that when he speaks of religion he always means Islam. Non-Muslims are simply unbelievers, and (in theory, at any rate) the jihad is justifiable, provided that it is waged ‘for God’s sake alone.’” Iqbal should have been thankful that this “introduction” to his philosophy was followed up by an offer of knighthood from the Governor and not by a call from the Inspector General of CID.

Leslie Dickinson, an acquaintance from Cambridge who had tried to draw similarities between William Blake and Oriental sages for Iqbal’s benefit in those days, was quick to take alarm. “Quite clearly Mr. Iqbal desires and looks forward to a Holy War, and that too a war of arms,” Dickinson wrote in The Nation, London, and lamented that weary of a Great War, the West was now looking towards the East to look for a new star but what they find there is “not the star of Bethlehem, but this blood-red planet” (apparently this was an allusion to Yeats’ latest poem, ‘The Second Coming’). “The East, if it arms, may indeed end by conquering the West but if so, it will conquer no salvation for mankind,” he concluded. “The old bloody duel will swing backwards and forwards across the distracted and tortured world… Is this really Mr. Iqbal’s last word?”

Dickinson’s “et tu Brutus, then fall Caesar” feeling was coming from the fact that the optimists in Europe at the end of the Great War had begun to hope that there would not be any more wars, especially since the establishing of the League of Nations (of which Dickinson was one of the pioneers). Iqbal, as much as he might have desired peace, was under no illusions: to him, the League of Nations was a rendezvous of coffin thieves for distribution of graves. He wrote to Nicholson and asked him to pass on the message, “Mr. Dickinson… is quite right when he says that war is destructive, whether it is waged in the name of truth and justice, or in the interests of conquest and exploitation. It must be put an end to in any case. We have seen, however, that Treaties, Leagues, Arbitrations and Conferences cannot put an end to it. Even if we secure these in a more effective manner than before, ambitious nations will substitute more peaceful forms of the exploitation of races supposed to be less favored or less civilized. The truth is that we stand in need of a living personality to solve our social problems, to settle our disputes, and to place international morality on a sure basis…”

Iqbal looked forward to the possibility that the evolution of civilization may one day outgrow war and conflict, but, he added, “I confess, I am not an idealist in this matter and believe this time to be very distant. I am afraid mankind will not for a very long time to come, learn the lesson that the Great European War has taught them.”

Dickinson had also complained that Iqbal applied his universal philosophy only to a particular nation while the non-Muslims were kept out of the promised kingdom. Replying to this, Iqbal pointed out that universal humanitarian ideals need to be started with a group of like-minded people when it comes to putting them into action. While it was not his purpose to make a case for Islam at all, he had still chosen to start with the Muslim society because “it has so far proved itself a more successful opponent of the race idea which is probably the hardest barrier in the way of the humanitarian ideal… Tribal or national organizations on the lines of race or territory are only temporary phases in the unfoldment of collective life, and as such I have no quarrel with them; but I condemn them in the strongest possible terms when they are regarded as the ultimate expression of the life of mankind.” It might have been very difficult to grasp the full significance of his statement in those days but it is perhaps easier to do so today when the natural course of human development has presented us with the phrase, “the global village.”

The unkindest cut of all came from none other than the novelist E. M. Forster (whose Passage to India was still in the making and would appear two years later). Reviewing Nicholson’s translation in The Athenaeum, he lamented the fact that Iqbal had not been translated earlier, unlike Tagore. The natural genius of Forster enabled him to make a profound observation: “Tagore was little noticed outside Bengal until he went to Europe and gained the Nobel Prize, whereas Iqbal has won his vast kingdom [among his own people] without help from the West.” This compliment was truer to the characteristic self-respect of Iqbal than any from his own people. However, Forster was a blind visionary and he anachronistically placed the so-called “nationalist” poems of the Bhati Gate period as Iqbal’s latest; his understanding was that the poet, after writing Islamic poetry, changed his position to join the mainstream Indian liberation movements and was now coming close to the vision of a homogenous Indian nation!

Through this same fatal review, the kind and well-meaning Forster inadvertently reinforced the misunderstanding originally made by Nicholson and subsequently picked up by every reviewer: Nietzsche’s alleged influence on Iqbal. However, Forster went a step further than the rest. “The significance of Iqbal is not that he holds [the doctrine of Nietzsche] but that he manages to connect it with the Koran. Two modifications, and only two, have to be made…”

One can only imagine how Iqbal must have felt at reading this. “[The writer in the Athenaeum does not] rightly understand my idea of the Perfect Man which he confounds with the German thinker’s Superman,” he complained to Nicholson, “I wrote on the Sufi doctrine of the Perfect Man more than twenty years ago, long before I had read or heard anything of Nietzsche…” He went on to quote the date of publication of his Al-Jili thesis and also hoped that if the reviewer “had known some of the dates of my Urdu poems referred to in his review, he would have certainly taken a totally different view of the growth of my literary activity.” Frankly, we cannot be so sure of that. Firstly, Forster was in a habit of mugging up his facts – in another article, years after Iqbal’s death, he attributed to Iqbal not only poems in Urdu and Persian but also in Punjabi! Secondly, Forster was diametrically opposed to Iqbal in his beliefs about art and literature, and Iqbal should not have hoped for any good from him despite the best intentions.

A Passage to India is generally hailed as Forster’s humanitarian outcry against racism, and therefore the mischief of that book has gone unnoticed: why are the best examples of personalities from both sides – the native as well as the British – absent in that book? This pathetic piece of self-deprecating guilt originated a long line of writings in which the sub-continent is presented as home to pitiable creatures tormented by the advances of a cruel modernism, and this tradition has come down to our own times in many presumed masterpieces.

Long time ago, Iqbal had made a prediction about the future of Western literature but kept it to himself; in 1920 he must have begun to realize that his prophecy had come true with more accuracy than he could grant it. “By the time I arrived in England in 1905, I had come to feel that despite its seeming beauty and attraction, the Oriental literature was devoid of a spirit that could bring hope, courage and boldness,” Iqbal stated at one point. “Looking at the Western literature [while in Europe], I found it quite uplifting but there, the science was poised against humanities and infusing pessimism into it. The Western literary situation was no better than the Oriental in my eyes by the time I returned in 1908.”

With uncanny prophetic accuracy, the last Romantic foresaw the dawn of an age when loss of pride in the human soul would manifest itself in all walks of life in Europe – through fascism, Nazism and tyranny of the masses in politics; through an obsession with exploring mental diseases without defining mental health in psychology; and in art through disintegration of form itself and an aversion to beauty (form, according to Iqbal, was important for the existence of the ego, and he defined it as “some kind of local reference or empirical background”).

In the aftermath of abundant reviews on his poem in the British literary circles (and perhaps also alarmed at their intellectual deficiencies), he decided to give a helping hand to the West. His next work was going to be addressed to the Europeans. Payam-i-Mashriq, or The Message of the East!

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